Christopher Booker wrote a whole book about the seven basic plots. Yep, he states that there are only seven basic stories in the whole world.
It feels like there’s more, doesn’t it?
That’s because, while we’re all using similar plots, we’re all putting our own twists on them.
That’s the key to keeping your ideas original.
Albert Einstein has been given the credit for saying one of my favourite quotes. He didn’t say it. Someone called C.M. Joad actually said it, apparently.
Whoever said it, if you’re worried about copying someone else’s work in your stories, make this your mantra:
‘The art of originality is hiding your source’.
Chances are, you’re copying someone. We all get inspiration from somewhere.
Personally, I get inspired by movies and TV. You might get inspired by books or songs. All of these are ways of telling stories, and if there are only seven plots in the world, we’re going to end up copying, over and over again.
So, how do you make sure your story stands out and is original, despite it being inspired by something well-loved and well known?
Every single one of my books has been inspired by films, TV shows and songs, so I understand this pain all too well. I also know how to go about hiding my sources.
Here are my five tips to keeping your stories original despite it being inspired by something well-known and already done.
- Keep brainstorming.
Sometimes you just need a new, original idea. Here’s a great technique I learned about a while ago. Create a table and in each square, write down each idea as it comes to mind. Even the rubbish ideas. Get it all out of your head. Eventually, you’ll start thinking differently, soon the ideas won’t come out in a rush. What comes next could be a brilliant ideas. Take a look at the later ideas, you’ll find your gem there.
- Focus on a new character.
Add a character into the world you’re ‘borrowing’ momentarily. Figure out how they fit in, their relationships with the existing characters, their backstory, what they want and their motivation.
From there, you can work out what happens next. Take the important parts, build new characters based on those relationships, and you have an original cast!
I like to use the Mary Sue technique for this. This is when you put yourself into someone else’s world as a fan. It’s why all of my protagonists tend to be female. Keep asking questions until you have something truly your own.
- Bring together different ideas.
Take the idea you love but is borrowed and add it to new ideas so that it bends and becomes your own. You can use other borrowed ideas that you love but it always helps to mix in some research. New ideas can come from anywhere and in all sizes, so relax and watch a movie, read a book, watch a documentary and go people watching. See what occurs to you and what fits into your story.
- Talk it through with someone.
Feeling extra stuck? Sometimes we all just need to talk our ideas through with someone. Buy your friend/relative a coffee and slice of cake (or whatever they like) and talk at them. They might have something to add, some good idea, or just talking it through might help you to work it out.
If you don’t have a friend or relative who is helpful in these situations (my mum’s amazing at it – we sit down in a coffee shop and boom! All my plot problems are solved), then that’s what the internet is for! Ask in your favourite writing forums or online groups.
Still feeling stuck? Come over, join and ask away in the Write into the Woods Facebook group.
- Throw in your own opinions and experience.
Does something about the character, setting or situation feel familiar? You can use that. If your character needs a rubbish job to run away from, think about all the rubbish jobs you’ve had. If you need a new setting, consider placing the story in your hometown or favourite city.
Need an example for some inspiration? Here we go…
Here’s an example from my own work.
The first draft I’m writing right now (well, not right now. Right now I’m writing this) is a mix of different inspiring things. Many people will recognise the TV show Firefly. In fact, Firefly can be recognised in a lot of novels (my favourite being the Ketty Jay series by Chris Wooding), but I have no idea if these authors actually ever watched Firefly. It’s just that we generally all like space/sky pirates.
There’s other stuff in there too. I took ideas from various places that occurred to me over the course of two years. Soon, I had a cast of characters and a plot, but someone was missing.
I couldn’t figure this one character out. I was stumped.
Then, one night my husband and I sat down and watched Rick and Morty for the first time.
Rick and Morty, if you don’t know, is an adult animated series originally based on Doc and Marty from Back to the Future. When the show got picked up, the creators had to change it enough to avoid breaching copyright. The show is still about an old male genius scientist, but his DeLorean is a homemade spaceship and he’s a drunk. Marty/Morty is his grandson and certainly not as cool.
Rick fascinated me. The show is well written and Rick is a character of depth.
The more I watched, the more I loved and the more it stayed in my mind. I began doing a Mary Sue. I put myself into the Rick and Morty world and asked who I would want to be.
I’d want to be on Rick’s level. I’d want to be a scientist, but not like Rick. My passion and skill would lie in machines.
(Ding ding ding!! She’s an engineer.)
I asked myself how the existence of other dimensions might play a part in this character’s life. During conversations with other characters, I figured out her backstory, and what that thing on her wrist is.
And then, during a conversation in my head between her and Rick, she had a name. Cassidy.
She has other surprises up her sleeve, but as Cassidy will be featuring in an upcoming book, I won’t share too much.
So, if you’re feeling stuck, wondering if your story is too similar to others, take a step back, ask questions and see what other inspiration hits you.